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Under President Barack Obama's Open Government Initiative, local governments must now publish their information online "open formats," making it easily accessible to the electorate. Open source software is playing a crucial part in this move, helping to create transparency and trust. As the government strives to bring greater transparency to its communications, Edward Pickle, Senior Vice President of OpenGeo, explores the vital role of open source systems in this changing relationship between state and citizen.

Open source software is perfectly positioned to facilitate the massive overhaul that will be necessary to open up government data to the public. As consumers, this technology is already changing the way in which we go about our day-to-day lives. It powers maps on our phones and provides us with information from organizations worldwide. Whether we realize it or not, open source is playing a substantial role in our everyday tasks.

The Open Government Initiative not only requires U.S. agencies to preserve and maintain electronic information, it also mandates that they proactively release data instead of simply responding to Freedom of Information Act requests from the public. This is where open source software comes into its own.

It is a common criticism that governments are reluctant to disclose information to the public. President Obama's Initiative, based on the three principles of transparency, participation and collaboration, aims to turn this model on its head, encouraging deeper engagement and closer communication between the administration and the people. Open source software is the key to prevent the initiative from becoming simply another unfunded mandate. With open source software, governments developing open information innovations have the freedom to share software code and applications with other like minded governments and organizations. And, they have the ability to cost-effectively deploy web services to provide more data to more constituents. Open source software breaks this Gordian knot and allows a free flow of good application sharing between governments and agencies, and enables large scale/low cost deployments to publish out information.

If transparency is the heart of strengthening the voter's trust in their government, open source software is its life support system, giving the public fast and easy access to the information they need. But the government alone cannot support this drive. It is a two-way process where citizens need to be equally involved to sustain the momentum towards this more collaborative open government model, working alongside the government to establish the kind of data that they most want to access.

Open source allows citizen participation and enables powerful, lower-cost information technology structures where they can work with governments to improve the accuracy of public data. Executive departments and agencies can then use these innovative tools to coordinate amongst themselves, with non-profit organizations, businesses, and even with individuals in the private sector.

Open source software allows governments to truly open up their data, encouraging citizens to feed into it and allowing companies, organizations and independent web developers to use that information to build applications and "living" data that serves a collective purpose. But the technology can go further than this. When the tools used are open source, the software itself can be developed by anyone. If software is built with open standards, it also allows municipalities to coordinate with each other in a way that has never been previously possible. When open source architecture is at the heart of an IT infrastructure, it releases that system from being locked into expensive and inflexible proprietary software. It allows useful applications to be shared across city boundaries. For the first time, cities no longer need to be isolated in their attempt to bring data representation to the people. With these capabilities in place, developments made in Portland will benefit New York and San Francisco and every place in between choosing to adopt the solution.

There is no doubt that the open government initiative can make huge strides towards creating more efficiently run cities and neighborhoods. Administrations need to fully embrace the potential of open data and capitalize on the knowledge and enthusiasm of their citizens. Open source is a very democratic response to an initiative that is itself designed to improve democracy. This is a technology that harnesses people power to distribute and collect vital data in a safe, efficient and accurate manner.

Above all, it is set to support the core of President Obama's initiative: a radical shift towards a government culture that is more open, accessible and accountable to the voting public.

About the Author

Edward Pickle is a Senior Vice President at OpenGeo and has over 25 years geospatial industry experience having worked with a wide range of commercial, government and non profit organizations worldwide. He has been very active in the world of OGC web services for the past several years, with significant side forays into geospatial data sharing. In recent years Eddie was one of the founders of IONIC Enterprise and served as its Chief Operating Officer until its purchase by ERDAS in 2007. He then directed content development for ERDAS, where he was very active in the launch of TITAN, a geospatial data sharing program combining visualization with social networking capabilities. A demographer by training, Eddie has accumulated a broad range of solutions expertise combining GIS software and both raster and vector data.

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